Drawings that come to life

Valery Melnikov / RIA Novosti

Russian animation, timeless moving masterpieces marked by the meticulous development of characters, is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves. The works of Lev Atamanov and Yuri Norshteyn were the first to capture the attention of the global public, and now the series “Masha and the Bear” has become one of the most popular cartoons for children around the world

The best contemporary cartoons, which established a foundation for Russian serial TV as a whole, came out of auteur animation. Most of them were created by Pilot Studios, founded in the early 1990s by a man that some call the Russian Bruno Bozzetto — Alexander Tatarsky.

Anatoly Prokhorov, the artistic director of the hit cartoon series Kikoriki, about animals in the shape of balls, was an associate of Tatarsky. Tatarsky’s ideas also formed the basis for Prokhorov’s series for older children, Fixiki.

One of the most famous modern Russian cartoons — Masha and the Bear — was created by a former Pilot Studios member, Oleg Kuzovkov. The first successful stories featuring Masha and the Bear were created by yet another former Pilot Studios member, Oleg Uzhinov.

“Oleg Kuzovkov first came up with the idea of Masha sometime in the 1990s, although the production of the series itself only began in 2008. According to Oleg Uzhinov, Kuzovkov was relaxing on a Black Sea beach when he saw a little girl wandering a lot the shore, going from one vacationer to another, doing whatever she wanted, not paying attention to anybody at all. She bit off a piece of someone else’s chicken and took another child’s toy. She was not afraid of anyone. For a while, the other people on the beach played along with her, but the next day, they began quietly putting things out of her sight and slightly moving away from her. From that experience, Kuzovkov came up with the idea of a girl who believes that the whole world was created just for her. After establishing his lead character, Kuzovkov realized he had to come up with her foil, a character with whom she could interact — and irritate. Finally, the idea evolved to adapt the characters from a folk tale familiar to all Russians about a young girl named Masha and bears she meets and tricks. The last step was to determine the character of the bear. The animators decided that he would be a former circus bear, now retired and living far away from everyone. Making him a circus bear meant that he had certain skills the storytellers could work with, like how to ride a bike and how to fish.

Then everyone was asking whether Masha had parents. When they had come up with the idea to do a series, they decided that Masha would have a grandfather, who lived in a small house near a railway line. But then, we decided to drop that idea, and decided that the main character would be an adult — a bear. This is how Masha ended up without any parents”, Uzhinov said.

Tradition and continuity

Russian animators today want to build on the experience of animators during the Soviet period in both their creative works and commercial pursuits. The main challenge facing these modern artists is the need to present eternally topical issues and subjects with the help of new technologies. They also have to adapt older formats to modern standards. One of the most successful experiments in updating classic animation was the revival of the program Veselaya karusel, which was produced by the famous Soyuzmultfilm Studios in 1969. This project was originally conceived as a platform for young filmmakers try their hands at making three-minute cartoons, which then were shown in a single viewing block. Veselaya karusel became one of the best-known brands in the Soviet period. Today, after a long break, the program was revived, and again it resulted in some brilliant works of art. The cartoons Cow and Pyk-pyk-pyk have already won many festival prizes and managed to attract the attention of global audiences.

The Pchela (“Bee”) animation studio has also had success with the format of combining three short cartoons into a single block. Its Green Apple program block features the cartoons Brave Mom, Flying Boy, and Star.

Distribution abroad

In earlier years, only socialist countries could experience Soviet animation, but today versions of some Russian cartoons are available in countries across the world. For example, Smeshariki has been translated into 15 languages and shown in 60 countries. Nevertheless, most Russian creative short films do not have wide distribution, either in Russia or abroad. However, larger projects occasionally do grow out of them. Such is the history of Piglet, the Russian relative of the famous British cartoon Peppa Pig. This animation began with a short film made in 2000 by Natalia Berezovaya called My Life, which received worldwide acclaim. In 2014, Berezovaya launched a series about a naive but endearing piglet who views his life in a barnyard through rosecolored glasses, finding beauty and charm in the most mundane and ordinary of things.


Not just for kids

While Russian children’s cartoons have received wide recognition, there are animators who target their work to an adult audience. One celebrated animated short film for adults is Konstantin Bronzit’s We Cannot Live Without Cosmos. Made in 2014, the film is nominated for a 2016 Academy Award in the Short Film (animated) category. Bronzit was also nominated for an Oscar for his animation Lavatory-Love Story in 2008. He isn’t the only award-winning Russian animator working for adults, however. Leonid Shmelkov’s short film My Own Personal Moose won a special prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2014, and Anna Budanova won a special jury prize for her film The Wound at the 2013 Festival international du film d’animation d’Annecy. Svetlana Filippova has also received recognition for her animated fables, including the penetrating Brutus. While remaining in the shade of successful commercial projects, the depth and complexity of these cartoons show that Russian animated series are not just cheap entertainment — they also stimulate discourse about the most important questions of life.

Maria Tereshchenko, the program director of the Big Cartoon festival
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Clan channel shows Russian cartoon in Spanish

The channel Clan RTVE is now broadcasting the animated series Yoko and His Friends, created by the Russian studio Wizart Animation in collaboration with Spanish companies Somuga and Dibulitoon Studio. In an interview with RBTH, project director general Juanjo Elordi spoke about its unique challenges and opportunities.

Why did you decide to collaborate with a Russian studio?

We got to know the studio Wizart at the world’s audiovisual content market MIPCOM, in Cannes. It’s our first animated series. We liked the idea of creating something together, so that the project could have an international vision.

What did you learn from that collaboration?

A production company in San Sebastian sees things differently than a production company in Moscow. We discuss how we like to work and what we think would suit international tastes. This communication allows us to acquire more experience.

What message does the series communicate to children?

The series is mainly about games in the fresh air. It’s a very important period in children’s lives that later serves as a basis to help overcome difficulties.

Elena Novikova
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